|The young leadership delegation finally meets in real life, high above Manhattan.|
“I expected everything in America to be big, but not that big,” said Yuval Calderone, 17, one of the 10 Israeli members of the young leadership delegation that recently met with peers in North Jersey through the NNJ Federation-sponsored Partnership2Gether, a people-to-people exchange with the northern Israeli city of Nahariya.
“The buildings and the food – it was all very big,” said the awed first-time visitor. “It was so much fun, and I got to know a new culture. You can see the teenagers there are so much like us – they love music and hanging out.”
From May 2 to May 8, the young ambassadors – hosted by local families – made presentations to students at the Gerrard Berman Day School in Oakland, New Milford High School, the Frisch School, the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies, Paramus High School, and the Paramus Jewish Community Center. They participated in Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut events and met with U.N. Deputy Ambassador from Israel David Roet, representatives from the Israel advocacy group Stand With Us, and community leaders.
“A lot of people want to know about Israel, and it was amazing to tell people things they didn’t know and to see in their eyes how they are learning,” Yuval said. “We need to protect our country by telling the world what it really is about.”
The Young Leadership program identifies budding teen leaders on both sides of the ocean, grooms them through a course (in North Jersey, it is held at Ma’ayanot in Teaneck), and enables them to get acquainted via Facebook, Skype and other means. This is the second year that 10 of the 30 Israelis and 10 of the 20 Americans in the program are visiting each other in person. The New Jersey residents will go to Nahariya in December.
Despite the expense, “We felt it was a priority, because the future of the American-Israeli relationship in the Jewish community depends on really getting to know each other as people,” Martha Cohen, northern New Jersey’s P2Gether chair, said.
“That has to start from the high school stage, if not before. A lot of people can’t afford to travel internationally, so we wanted to make sure our kids in Nahariya and North Jersey have the opportunity to connect socially and through the dynamic of education. We always have a Shabbaton for the kids to have concentrated time together and get a sense of knowing each other from all angles, because that will cement their future relationship.”
In addition to school presentations, the Israelis participated in a program at the J-ADD home in Leonia for adults with developmental disabilities, and they gardened at the home of a Westwood Holocaust survivor through the federation’s Bonim program. They had time to shop at Garden State Plaza and the Bergen Town Center, and they explored Times Square and Rockefeller Center with their new friends.
“The visit was successful in every which way,” said BCHSJS’s principal, Bess Adler. “It is particularly impactful for the Americans to make connections with the Israelis, and that is our overarching goal because few of our kids have personal connections to Israel. The news is all about bashing Israel left and right, and it’s difficult for our kids to see Israel as anything but an aggressor. This program has enabled us to put a face on Israel.”
Susan Penn, head of the federation’s Community Task Force, said the meeting with New Milford High School history students – none of them Jewish – was especially memorable.
“This was the first time these students had ever met teens from Israel, and their questions were remarkable,” she said. “They wanted to know about the army and how long they serve and how they prepare, and whether they get paid. The Israelis were quite articulate and passionate about how excited they were to serve their country. You could tell this was something the Americans didn’t expect to hear. They could not believe that these teens view serving their country as a highlight of their lives.”
Yuval noticed that in this respect, the gulf between Israeli and American teenagers is wide. His impression is that Israelis mature earlier because they face compulsory military service at 18, while Americans get to be kids much longer. And U.S. teens, particularly in the suburban Northeast, tend to have little understanding of military matters.
“People don’t know much about the army – that you can be many other things, such as a mechanic or a driver or social worker, and not just a fighter,” he said.
Ms. Cohen said the tables will be turned when the young leadership ambassadors from New Jersey are hosted in Nahariya. “When our kids go there, they bring a new dimension to the Israeli understanding of who American Jews are,” she said.
Gali Avraham, 17, said she is looking forward to seeing her new American friends again. “We have already been in touch a few times since we left, and I’m waiting to see them in December. I already miss them,” she said.
Ms. Cohen said the program continues beyond high school so that the relationships can continue as well.
“We’ve put in place the ability to do an alumni project,” she said. “Our first cohort is working on that, and we’re discussing what this cohort will do. Each young leader chosen for the program is told that this is training for the future. The expectation is to take these skills and continue their connection and bring others into the understanding they’ve created between one another.”
Next year’s leadership class is being recruited now. Any Jewish high school sophomore or junior in North Jersey is welcome to apply; for information, email Galeet Lipke at GaleetL@jfnnj.org.